SAN FRANCISCO — Yesterday Lenovo made headlines in the tech world when it announced the world's first Android smartphone with support for Google's futuristic augmented reality (AR) platform, Tango, at its annual Lenovo Tech World event. The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is slated for a September release, and it will be available unlocked via Lenovo's website — and, oddly enough, in Lowe's stores — for $499. (Lowe's created an AR app for Tango devices that lets customers visualize various home improvement fixes or enhancements.)
The massive gadget is equal parts overgrown smartphone and tiny tablet. It probably won't be a good fit for everyone, but it represents a significant advancement for Google, Tango and AR. Here are four ways Lenovo's new Phab 2 Pro could influence and advanced modern AR.
1) Phab 2 Pro aims to bring AR to the masses
Until this week, Project Tango was just what its name suggested: a "project" or experiment, one of Google's many "moonshots." Yesterday, Lenovo and Google took a big step toward legitimizing this experiment by previewing what will be the first widely available device that supports Google's AR platform. Google accordingly announced at the Tech World event that it has officially stripped the word "project" from the platform title, and its AR division is now simply called "Tango."
Lenovo first announced its support for Tango in January at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, and the new Phab 2 Pro is the first physical manifestation of its commitment to AR and Google's platform. Yesterday, Lenovo also said it would make more AR devices based on Tango in the future.
Today, average consumers may have a vague idea of what AR is and its potential value, but they probably don't understand how it actually works or why they might want to use it. Lenovo's Phab 2 Pro represents a potential step towards AR understanding. People will be able to walk into a Lowe's store this fall and experiment with AR, which could help them get their heads around the technology.
2) Phab 2 Pro an awkward implementation of a good idea
The Phab 2 Pro is gigantic. It feels more like a small tablet than a big phone, and for the majority of people, it's too big to comfortably fit into a pocket. The phone isn't going to fly off the shelves, and it’s a niche device designed for a very specific type of user, and for early adopters.
Tango uses a number of different cameras and sensors to track movement, distance and space, and those components — along with the hefty battery required to power them — take up a lot of space. That's a big part of the reason why the Phab 2 Pro is so large.
Lenovo's AR experience on the Phab 2 Pro is impressive, and it shows genuine signs of Tango and AR potential. However, the AR experience supersedes the overall smartphone experience today's consumer has come to expect. Modern smartphone owners want sleek, slim and light devices they can easily carry in a pocket. Lenovo's first Tango phone is clunky, thick and heavy. The Tango AR features are compelling, but not compelling enough to justify the sacrifices. And unless lots of people use or experiment with the phone, it's not going to create any real amount of demand for AR devices.
3) U.S. carriers not ready to back Phab 2 Pro, Tango
Lenovo may be willing to back Tango, but U.S. wireless carriers, the go-to source for mobile phones for most people, apparently aren't — at least not yet. The Phab 2 Pro will be globally available via Lenovo starting in September, and Lowe's plans to offer the device in its stores during the 2016 holiday season. However, consumers won't be able to walk into a carrier's store and experiment with the device, and U.S. carriers won't officially support it, which means it could have some compatibility or quality of service issues.
The lack of carrier support also means Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and their smaller counterparts aren't convinced the masses are ready for AR, and they're unwilling to put up the funds necessary to stock and sell the device. They might be right. The Phab 2 Pro should help raise awareness around AR and legitimize the tech, but AR is still in its infancy, and the average smartphone user probably doesn't want or need a phone that prioritizes AR functionality over general usability. If carriers don't support Tango phones, they're not going to find their way into many people's (large) pockets.
4) Consumer Phab 2 Pro could prove AR's value in enterprise, education
Lenovo is marketing the Phab 2 Pro as a consumer device, and its sub-$500 price is clearly designed to be affordable. However, some of the Phab 2 Pro's most compelling features are more fit for businesses and academic institutes.
For example, a Museum in Barcelona has already used a Tango tablet to provide guided tours. Lowe's plans to use a Tango app to let customers visualize home improvements from afar without making actual changes — and, in turn, increase sales. A company called Wayfair is also using Tango to let potential customers virtually place home furnishings around their homes before making purchases. And the American Museum of Natural History created an app for museum-goers to place virtual dinosaurs in their surrounds to experience scale.
Tango's most intriguing consumer feature is probably its potential for immersive gaming, but most of the gaming and entertainment apps Google demoed are still half-baked. In other words, the Phab 2 Pro makes the enterprise and educational appeal of Tango and AR much more evident than the consumer value. The more businesses and organizations that take note and begin to investigate and experiment with AR, the faster the market will progress and mature.